Saturday, 26 November 2005

Books on the bedside table, 2

Some current or recent reading material, all of which I can recommend:

The Hope, by Herman Wouk. Called "magnificent" by Anthony Burgess, that was enough to lure me into its pages. An epic novel describing the birth of modern Israel, told through the lives and fortunes of its leading characters. (You may remember Wouk's Winds of War which told a story of WWII in a similar fashion, and which was turned into a TV mini-series?) The Hope is well crafted and enjoyable.

The Kingdom of the Wicked, by Burgess himself, is set in the same geographical area as Wouk's novel but two thousand or so years earlier. Another historical novel, this follows on from Burgess's Man of Nazareth (from which another mini-series came) and purports to recount the story of Paul and the Apostles in setting out to take over the world with their stories of Messiahs, miracles and other madness. Not Burgess's best, but it still shits all over lesser accounts of the same events, such as those by the Apostles themselves . . .

Moving on now to something completely different: Gordon Corrigan's Mud, Blood and Poppycock is an extended argument that all you know about the horrors of First World War trench warfare -- the stories of "lions led by donkies" -- the senseless slaughter, all so that as Blackadder observed, "General Haig can move his drinks cabinet a hundred yards closer to Berlin -- the talk of a 'lost generation' -- all this Corrigan argues is the stuff of myth and nonsense. At least, that is, for trench warfare on the Western Front, for the British, for most of the war. In that severely delimited fashion I think he does succeed, pointing out for example that the Generals and the military tactics adopted were highly successful -- for example, troops advancing under the cover of rolling artillery barrages would often succeed where later even tanks could not; pointing out too that the slaughter on first day of the Somme offensive, with 20,000 British dead, was both necessary, given the available materiel and the events at Verdun, and tragic -- but comparable in loss of life to, for example, the first day of the D-Day offensive in the Second World War, when 9,500 Allied soldiers died in the battle to begin the liberation of Europe from the Nazis.

A book worth reflecting upon if you think you know WWI.

Last but not least, Umberto Eco's Kant and the Platypus, an entertaining meditation as Eco desribes it on "the reasons we can tell an elephant from an armadillo (as well as why we don't normally mistake our wife for a hat) . . [a problem] even Kant (as we shall see) not only failed to solve but didn't even manage to express in satisfactory terms." For his part, Eco himself offers much indecision, gleefully taking as his motto "a quotation from Boscoe Pertwee, an eighteenth century author (unknown to me) which I found in Gregory (1981:558): 'I used to be indecisive, but now I'm not so sure.'"

Both the motto and his manner of describing it give a clue to the book: it's playful, learned and offering more questions than answers but with much insight and a friendly wink at his own footnoting. Less enjoyable than Eco's fiction, but still delightful for all that. [And if you really care what I think about Kant, you might be interested in several articles on the 'catastrophic spider' written in response to a Kantian philosopher, Kant Can't, Kant Couldn't, Kant Didn't, and Kant Really Wasn't -- the first by Lindsay Perigo, and the last three by yours truly.]

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